The End of the American Century

At the end of WWII, US foreign policy had shifted 180 degrees from isolationism to a posture of near global hegemony. No longer would Washington rely on outside powers to organize markets, trade and geopolitics. The British and French had proved themselves to be incompetent, the Germans and Japanese needed to be contained and managed, while the two communist powers (China and especially the Soviet Union) needed to be defeated. This dramatic change in US orientation was in direct opposition to the historic ascendant position first enunciated by America’s forefather himself, George Washington. Washington, in his farewell address, had warned against foreign entanglements. But after direct US involvement in two world wars and an economy dependent on foreign markets for growth, things had changed since 1797.

Known as the American Century, this new policy of global involvement meant that both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were to become American lakes, that Turkey and Greece would shield the Mediterranean from Soviet encroachment, that Germany would remain divided along an east-west/communist-capitalist axis, and that Japan remain occupied. Both ex-enemies West Germany and Japan were rebuilt, and their economies integrated as exporters into the Western-liberal model. Japan became an important American military base, while nearly all the countries of Western Europe were organized into a vast military alliance. The world bifurcated along ideological lines as the two camps competed for the supremacy of the Euro-Asian land mass. However, the capitalist world was a hundred times richer in money, cultural soft power and, most importantly, the ideals of human freedom.

The US, Europe and Japan had one major weakness — oil. They simply didn’t have enough of the stuff to maintain the levels of growth necessary to keep a capitalist economy functioning. However, there was a vast sea of this liquid gold energy under the deserts of Arabia and Iran. And from the moment that US President Roosevelt first met with the King of Saudi Arabia in 1943, the die was cast — the Soviet Navy was to be kept out of the Persian Gulf at all costs. Just as important as Europe and Japan, the vital sea lanes to the Middle East were to be kept open and free, even at the risk of nuclear war. For the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to remain American lakes, the Persian Gulf needed to become one as well. However, the only country blocking a Soviet land bridge to the all-important Gulf was Iran. Without Iran in the Western camp, the Soviet Union could place an oil chokehold on all the Western capitalist economies.

The geography of the Soviet Union and Iran explains much of what has happened to the region of the Middle East in the 21st century. Throughout the entire Cold War, Iran never fell into an alliance with the Soviets. When it appeared, however, that it might happen, the CIA pulled off a coup and Iran’s independent leader was overthrown. The Iranians have never forgotten what they perceive as American infamy. Years later, when it had become apparent that the leftists and Islamists had overthrown the American puppet, the Shah of Iran, US President Carter signaled the green light to Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Carter’s indifference led to a direct attack on Iran. First though, Carter had made certain that the Soviets were essentially maneuvered aside before allowing Saddam to proceed. By the time the Iran-Iraq War finally ended, the Soviet Union (for many reasons other than the Middle East) was clearly at the end of its financial capacity to maintain a European empire. They had simply been outspent by the US.

By 1992, the American Century had blossomed in full, and Washington envisioned a “new world order” and a Europe “whole and free”. There was no place in this vision for Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. They were merely expected to fall into line as another adjunct nation to the global interests of the world’s only superpower. And as far as both Iran and Iraq were concerned, they (along with Assad of Syria) were treated as pariah states. Russia did fall in line, but they went bankrupt by 1998. Iraq under Saddam never tired of war and invaded Kuwait. Within months they were forced back across the border by an American-led coalition. Iran sold oil, recuperated from horrible casualties it had endured through eight years of war, and worked secretly on developing its nuclear capacity (not unlike another pariah state, North Korea). Meanwhile, over the course of a decade and a half (1982-1997) China had shifted economic models and had become a partner with Western global capitalism. US industry headed to Asia in search of cheap labor to solve its endemic inflation problem.

By 2001, America was perceived as an uber power. Its military prowess was uncontested as NATO expanded eastward into the regions of the old Soviet Union. Russia could do nothing about it. The post-Cold War security structure of Europe was never a Clinton administration priority. In fact they never even thought about it. With uber power came an uber arrogance, a similar situation to the aftermath of WWI, when Germany was treated with contempt by England and France.

For the world’s establishment economists and the Federal Reserve, the dramatic financial events of the years after the Cold War were never even on their radar screens. They had been completely blind to the bubble collapses of the 1990s, and they remained that way. Year after year, decade after decade, the US had piled up trade deficits unheard of in the annals of economic history. As US jobs moved overseas, a vibrant industrial economy altered toward finance and real-estate speculation. Literally, at the turn of the century, whether it was in economics or in global geopolitics, no one imagined the depth of trauma the world was to experience in the next fourteen years.

Then came the shock of 9-11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They caused an enormous hemorrhage of blood and treasure. Within six years as Americans tired of Iraq, the financial meltdown and the great recession shocked them into disbelief. As jobs were lost in the millions, a new president was elected, and Obama’s abrupt withdrawal from the Arab Middle East left a trail of carnage and chaos in Iraq and Syria. As America became perceived as weak, the rise of ISIS and the Russian pushback in the Crimea and the Ukraine went forward. The US had spent trillions on its battered economy and its global strategic position, and what did it achieve? Its national debt ballooned to 18 trillion dollars, and on Wall St., once again, the markets seem overpriced and poised for another catastrophe. Even if interest rates were ever to normalize, the global bond markets would probably collapse, and the stock market bubble wouldn’t be far behind. Meanwhile, the price tag on the US national debt would leave politicians in a total quandary as to what to pay for. Like so many impoverished working- class elderly (wondering whether to pay the rent or their drug prescriptions), US officials would also be left with the hard choices of whether to fund for education, medical care, or overseas military operations. But without interest rate normalization, the perpetual bubble machine created by the Federal Reserve will continue to run its course until (once again) the bubbles can only pop. Either way, the risks are enormous.

In the Middle East, the Iraq War and its aftermath have left a black hole of total chaos. Iran used al Qaeda after 9-11 to harass US troops in Iraq. They killed and maimed many Americans. Eventually, because of the Iraqi government’s sectarian policies (through al- Maliki’s support for Iran), al Qaeda morphed into ISIS. The Iraq War had altered the regional balance toward Iran. Unlike his father’s administration, which was very cautious with respect to the regional balance, George W. Bush overthrew the Sunnis. This had left the Levant open for Iranian and Shiite manipulation. After eight years of blood and so much money, the US under a new leader, Barack Obama, simply gave up on the mission. This was a huge mistake because it meant that the Americans had little or no leverage toward either the Islamists (ISIS), Iran, the Assad regime in Syria, or al-Maliki in Iraq. The mistake of commission was replaced by the mistake of omission. Now, six years into the Obama administration, the terrorist threat has grown by multiples into the thousands, the Sunni world is enraged at America and Europe for doing nothing about Assad, ISIS has morphed into an Iraqi-Syrian Caliphate, the ideology of the Caliphate is spreading terrorism back to Europe, and Iran has moved closer toward regional hegemony with potential nuclear weaponry.

Yes, the Iraq War was a mistake. But if the US had stayed the course, they might have been able to bring the Sunnis and Shiites of Iraq closer together within a democratic framework. This opportunity was lost due to the Obama administration’s mishandling of Iraq’s 2010 election. By supporting al-Maliki and not Allawi, ISIS would never have taken over the Sunni regions of Iraq. A successful democratic outcome in Iraq could have been the spur for a similar outcome in Syria. At least the US would have had the resources on the ground to continue their successful surge with the Sunnis and prevent the military spread of the IRGC (Iran) from resupplying Assad with arms and personnel.

In Europe, American policy treated the justifiable security interests of Russia with utter disregard. This was a grave mistake. Because, like the Middle East, the contradictions in European policy have now been exposed, and the strategic position of the US as the world’s sole superpower has been put into serious question. The American Century has run its course. The Soviet Union has been defeated. But the “guns and butter” policy that had worked to bankrupt the Soviets had a strong blowback against the US itself. The inflation it caused in the 1970’s was solved on the backs of workers in the US manufacturing sector. The great military buildup since the Reagan administration would have been impossible without cheap Chinese imports. Yes, the Soviet Union went bankrupt, but so too did the US twenty-five years later. It was in those same twenty-five years that the arrogance of US policy has made a total mess of the world that we now live in.

Only through close and friendly US and Russian relations can the problems of the Middle East be resolved. Syria, Iraq, and the future of all weapons of mass destruction are the major problems facing the region. Integrating Israel as a normal state (whereby its continued existence is not even in question) will require a powerful partnership to end all forms of regional and external hegemony. This especially means that the post-Cold War security structure for all of Europe (from the Urals to the Atlantic) must be reconfigured. NATO, which is the quintessential institution of the American Century, must simply be replaced, because the century of the sole superpower has now come to an end. But the countries of the Middle East must not be left to fend for themselves. What is required is a new international order; nothing less will suffice.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).